Danielle Capalbo’s Blog

“Cultural compass”

Posted in Cultural differences, Encounters by Quiet Giant on May 24, 2009

In a rush of interviews and articles, plus the looming awareness that our time in Egypt was quickly expiring, I forgot to blog our meeting with New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman. His coverage has spanned the whole Middle East, but he’s based in Cairo.

Slackman fielded our questions about the future of international journalism and the hurdles of reporting from a police state. But his unofficial manifesto was my favorite: To put everything into context.

The most important thing foreign correspondents do is help people sitting in Southern California or New York or Boston or Kansas or … Hong Kong to understand how people in Lebanon react when the president of the United States refers to Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.”

Although he’s stationed in the belly of a raging political fire, Slackman doesn’t advocate. He doesn’t try to change the world with agenda-driven reporting or activism. He doesn’t even strive to make the Western world embrace the Eastern world. His task seems simpler, but it’s actually tremendous. Because geography is hardly the most important element dividing the Western world from the East. He just wants us to know the essentials. Then our interactions are informed, at least.

Case and point: Last June, Slackman choreographed a social experiment in Cairo based on his failure to ever yield accurate directions from people on the street. They would volunteer to help, of course. They’d tell him where to turn, what buildings he should look for as landmarks. But usually, two different Egyptians would confidently deliver two different sets of directions. Oh – and they would usually be wrong.

The result of his experiment was this article, and the realization that an apparently inconsequential social transaction carried a lot more weight to Egyptians because of its context in their culture.

Turns out, “It was more of a shame to say, ‘I don’t know,’ than to send you in the wrong direction,” he told us. “I think the guys who are sitting around the decision table with Arabs in Washington need to know that.”

For sure.

The directions debacle is just a microcosm of a much greater cultural conundrum, which brings me full circle to the his mention of Hezbollah. In Lebanon, the organization has members in government and runs health care systems. It supervises a telecommunications system. Here, they function as a resistance group; a political body. Meanwhile, America relentlessly identifies the group as a terrorist organization. That sort of complete disconnect – the super power’s disregard for a reality separate from its own – causes hostility and, in turn, prevents any meaningful cooperation.

“I’m not advocating a position,” Slackman said. “I’m saying, if you’re going to sit down and talk, you have to understand where people are coming from.”

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